Sometimes, while grabbing coffee or during her lunch break, Kate would twist her wedding ring off and sit at a table by the door, watching men glance in her direction. At twenty-eight she knew that she looked like a young woman just getting a start on her life, and she would let herself believe that for a while.
Five days before Jason was supposed to get time off from the military, she was eating a panini and watching people walk down the street outside when a younger man with kind eyes and in a well-fitted suit asked if he could sit with her. He told her that he’d seen her there a couple of times and wondered if she wouldn’t mind the company. He talked about his job as a producer at the local news station, and she told him that she was starting her second year at a public relations firm. They talked about places they’d both visited while on vacations to Chicago and the upcoming Olympics.
It was twenty minutes past the time she was supposed to return to work when he wrote his number on a copy of his receipt and said that he hoped to see her around. She stared at it for a while after he had left, then folded it up and tucked it in her wallet behind her driver’s license.
Her mother told her once that she would regret it. Marrying so young to somebody she hadn’t known but eight months. They were in love, Kate told her. It was the best thing for them, she repeated.
Her mom never said it again.
What a great plan they thought it was to marry before he got deployed or relocated. The military would take care of her and even help pay for the rest of her education so when she finished her bachelor’s degree she wouldn’t be drowning in debt. She found out she was pregnant with Alex at the end of her sophomore year, and she went to school for two months in the Fall before accepting defeat.
Kate didn’t know how to prepare for her husband’s return when he hadn’t been home in almost eight months. She had seen him in video chats and heard his voice over the phone, but soon the virtual walls they had gotten used to would fall down and they’d be standing on a thin, dusty foundation where they could reach out and touch each other. It was a choice he’d made, one she’d agreed to when she married him, but that didn’t change the fact that he had become a visitor in their lives.
Everyone said that she was doing all right. The kids were well behaved, her yard was kept, and she had a job that provided what his military pension didn’t.
But that’s all she felt. All right.
They had their routine, which the counselor said was the key to making the kids feel normal. “Look normal” was the way she would have phrased it, so she put on a makeup and knock-off designer sunglasses and went through the motions.
Each morning she took Nathan to a daycare and Alex to school, where she walked him to his second grade classroom and talked briefly with his teacher. “A present parent makes a better parent” was how her counselor put it. Work consisted of filing paperwork and responding to constituent’s letters in the local office of their District Representative until three o’clock. She’d sit at a computer entering the sender’s concerns into a spreadsheet. Most people wanted money for their organizations or felt that if they told the Congressman how Congress should be run, he’d relay the message and they would be the ones to save the entire democratic system.
Once she’d opened a letter to find pictures of several cats that a woman had sent, the short, scrawled letter saying only that she hoped that her feline friends would brighten his day and bring him the same type of peace they brought her. The last hour of the day she typed each sender’s name into a pre-written letter that she would seal and add to the stack of outgoing mail. Every week she made a report that she left on the congressman’s desk, the repeated concerns in bold and the individual issues completely omitted.
Then she’d pick up the boys from school, going home to have snacks and do homework and play medieval knights in the yard. Their Jack Russell Daisy never got tired of wearing the dragon costume she’d gotten on clearance the week after Halloween and being chased around with plastic swords. She’d make dinner and let them watch television while she swept and scrubbed and folded until nine.
Every night as she carried Nathan to his room, she’d sit him on his bed and crouch on the floor beside him. As he rubbed his eyes, she’d point to the handmade map that took up most of one side of a wall. “Where are we?” she would ask and watch as he pointed to the side with America sketched out, pictures of her and him and Alex at the park, at her mother’s, and his second birthday party in the center of it. “Yeah, and where is Daddy?”
On cue he would point to the blob that was the Middle East, with a picture of Jason grinning as he held him the day he was born. Nathan had been born in the middle of Jason’s first tour of duty, and his memories of his father were from pictures, the time he got for Rest and Recuperation, and the month he had in between each of his tours of duty. One of the more recent pictures was of Jason beside a tank, his smile looking more like a grimace.
“Why is Daddy there?” she asked.
“Because it’s his job. Because he keeps us safe,” he would reply with a yawn and lay down.
She would pat the covers down around him and kiss his forehead. “That’s right,” she always said. “And he loves you and me and Alex so much. And I love you and Alex more than anything.”
As he closed his eyes, she would flick his nightlight on and his overhead light off, making sure to leave the door cracked before going across the hall to Alex’s room. She’d go through similar motions with him, making sure he’d brushed his teeth and laid out clothes for the next day, telling him goodnight and that she and his father loved him.
The pictures on his wall were mainly from the days before the war, when Jason was home everyday. Her eyes were always drawn to one of Jason and Alex, laughing in a pile of leaves they’d spent all morning raking. Alex, at the age of four, had maybe cleared a four-foot space in the half hour with his tiny plastic rake. She remembered how Jason had cleared the rest of the yard around him, a proud grin in place as he kept an eye on Alex
Most nights he would call her or they would video chat. They talked about the kids or their families or her work, pretending like he was on some business trip instead of in a combat zone. She stopped asking questions about what he had been doing when she realized that no matter how she phrased it, he would pretend that he hadn’t heard. Afterwards, she’d go to her room and wash off her makeup from the day, looking at a face that always seemed to be gaunter and paler than it was the day before.
Two days before Jason’s return, Kate walked into Alex’s room carrying a hamper of laundry and found him staring at the pictures of him and his father that were on his wall. She asked him what he was doing.
“Nothing,” he said.
“It’s only a couple more days before Daddy returns,” she said as she began to fold his clothes away in his dresser. “Aren’t you excited?”
“What do you mean?” she asked, looking over to where he sat at his bed, picking at the creases in his quilt.
“It’s not going to be the same,” he whispered.
“When Daddy is home. It’s not going to be like it was before he left.”
“Of course it will,” she said. “It’ll be like all the other times he’s gotten to visit. You’ll get to do whatever you want together. He already told me he’s going to take you to a baseball game and the zoo next weekend.”
Kate crouched by his bed and saw angry tears welling in his eyes.
“No. I mean before he ever left,” he said, shoving past her and running down the hall. The back door slammed a moment later, and she looked out his bedroom window to see him hiding behind the tool shed.
She went back sweeping, and scrubbing and folding, and set a plate of macaroni and cheese on the back steps while Nathan was eating dinner. As was paying the bills, she heard the creak of the back door. An hour later when she went to check on them before going to bed, she found Alex, still dressed in his t-shirt and stained jeans, asleep beside Nathan.
Jason stepped off the plane with nine other members of his unit. The three of them stood waiting in the terminal with family members of the other men and women, Nathan on her hip and Alex holding her hand. The space was filled with tears and laughter when he reached them, and he clutched her tightly, the foreign smells of sand and gunpowder encompassing her.
They stood in the embrace for a long time.
Jason was already asking her questions as they walked through the parking lot to the car.
“Is Daisy still so fat she can barely squeeze through the dog door?” he asked her as they drove down the interstate.
“Not so much. I’ve been feeding him this diet stuff the vet suggested.”
“It’d be cheaper to feed him less of the regular food. Has that hardware store always been there?”
She glanced up from the road. “It’s been there about six months now. There’s a new grocery store off of East Main, too. And they’re opening some chain coffee shop next month next to the mall.”
“Shit, this town looks different every time I come back,” he commented as they passed a large dirt lot that had been a forest a few months before. Kate glanced in the rear-view mirror at their sons.
He talked about all the things he was going to take them to do and see in the short two weeks he had at home for R&R before he finished out the rest of his tour. As they drove, Nathan began to chatter to himself as two year olds do, pointing out the dog in the car beside them and the people standing outside a busy restaurant. Jason clenched his hands around his seat belt strap and continued to talk to the window about how much he’d missed baseball until he stopped abruptly, and lashed out at their son.
“Shut up! Just shut up,” he yelled at Nathan, who was startled into silence for a moment before tears began to dribble down his cheeks. It was followed by wailing. Jason turned to her, exasperated. “Jesus Kate, haven’t you taught him how to shut up for a while?”
He went back to discussing his plans, but the rest of the car remained silent except for the quiet sniffles of Nathan behind her.
The kids were in bed for the night while Jason and Kate sat in the kitchen, watching a batch of brownies slowly bubble and rise by the light of the oven. He held her hand across the table as they watched the microwave timer click down a single number at a time.
They glanced at each other and laughed into the silence, but then she looked away as he kissed her hand.
“So, how have you been?” he asked and they laughed again.
“You know how it is. Kids, work, kids, clean, repeat,” she said and some the heaviness in the room began to lift. “How are you?” she asked quietly.
It was his turn to look away. “I’m fine,” he said. “Really, I am. It’s just-”
Kate’s eyes traced the deep lines stretching across his forehead, the wisps of gray invading the dark hair beside his temples.
They felt it circle in the air around them.
“I know,” she said.
The beeping of the timer filled the room.
The next day she took off work and didn’t take the kids to school. They woke up late and she made an elaborate breakfast before they headed to the park where she sat on a bench, watching Nathan laugh uncontrollably as his father chased him in circles around a tree. At that age they could forgive and forget so easily, Jason’s sudden outbursts never fazed him for long. Later, as Alex and Jason threw a baseball back and forth, the only sound she heard over Nathan’s chatter to her was the smack of the ball against their gloves.
That weekend they invited family and friends to their home so they could celebrate the short time they had with her husband. Jason grilled burgers and laughed with his college friends until his whole body shook with it and tears formed in his eyes. Kate couldn’t help but glance in his direction, entranced by a Jason that looked ten years younger, his face unblemished by the streaks of tense awareness that she’d seen in the past three days. He kept glancing at her as well, and it was like the days before, when their hours were filled with secret messages that only the other could decipher.
He caught her eye after dinner and weaved his way through the chatter to interrupt her flutter of words by clasping hands and swaying her back and forth with the music coming out of her laptop. She muffled her laugh in his chest and let him twirl her as everyone looked on.
The day after, she drove to the bank to deposit her check on her lunch break. The line was long with only two tellers working on a Friday afternoon, but she waited patiently as the minutes passed and she only moved a few feet. A young couple walked out of the office next to her, and she watched as they each shook hands with the banker, there opposite hands staying interlocked with one another’s. A teller called to her and she walked past the black plastic barriers to the front, pulling out her deposit slip and driver’s license. A receipt fluttered onto the counter in front of her. She unfolded it, saw the numbers written carefully at the bottom, and quickly shoved it back in her wallet.
On her way out as she was reorganizing her cards, she saw the edge of the receipt poking out of the pocket she’d forced it into. She unfolded it, staring at the combination of numbers scrawled there for her. Putting her wallet back into her purse, she headed out the door, dropped the receipt in a trashcan as she passed, and drove back to work.
The family went about their routines with Jason in the middle of them. A week passed and their afternoons and weekends were filled with activity. When Kate suggested that maybe they spend an afternoon at home, Jason flatly told her no and they headed out the door.
One night after the kids had been asleep for a while and they were getting ready for bed, she asked him about the last eight months. “Jason, what’s been happening over there? I know you don’t want to talk about it when you call, but now that your home-”
“I still don’t want to talk about it,” he said, not looking at her as he changed out of his clothes.
“But you can talk to me. I think it might make you feel better if you talk to someone about it. If not me, then maybe my counselor-”
“I said I don’t want to talk about it,” he yelled it at her, suddenly lunging so that his face was just inches from hers, his labored breaths separating them.
“Okay,” she whispered into the silence, reaching her hand to lightly touch his chest. “You don’t need to talk about it.”
His face crumbled then and she sat him on the bed with his head heavy in her lap, feeling the shudders shake his body.
The first week flooded into the second, and the days seemed to be slipping from them. The way he held her hand felt more desperate, like he was clinging to her to keep from falling. He started yelling at the kids more when they got loud or said they didn’t want to go somewhere. At one point Alex told his father that he didn’t see the point to them doing all the fun stuff because soon he’d just be gone again. For a moment Kate had thought that he was going to hit him.
Several hours after they had gone to bed the night before a plane was going to take him away again, he shook her awake. When she started to ask him what was wrong, he covered her mouth. “There’s someone outside,” he whispered, and her eyes focused on the delirium in his. “I heard them.” He quickly moved his hand away and sat up in the bed. Coldness filled her body.
“Baby,” she said slowly, trying to keep her voice controlled. “Are you sure? Sometimes dogs cross through our yard and make noises.”
“I know what I heard,” he said, tossing the sheets off and lifting up a single blind to look into the backyard. She saw that his hands were shaking.
“I believe you. I do,” Kate responded, getting out of bed and standing beside him. She placed her fingertips on his back and felt the sweat that had soaked through his shirt.
“I need to go check it out,” he turned to her, desperate. “I have to make sure.”
“I know,” she took his hand and they went down the hall together. “I’ll come with you.” They peeked through the doors of their son’s rooms to see their tiny bodies move up and down with their breathing. In the kitchen she pulled out two flashlights while he walked through the house, slowly rounding each corner as he entered the different rooms. He turned on all the lights and checking that the windows and doors were locked. The only sound in the house was his ragged breathing.
They walked out the back door together and paced around the yard, shining beams of light into the shed, behind the trees, in the tiny space between the ground and the porch.
Jason walked back into the house without saying a word.
Kate turned all the lights back off and went to their bedroom. She found Jason in their bathroom, staring intently at himself in the mirror.
“I feel it,” he whispered. “I feel myself losing my mind. I see it on your face. I see it in the kids.” His voice cracked and he looked away.
“You’ve done your three tours now. Just four more months and you’ll be done with it. They promised that you’d get a job training recruits on a base here, and everything is going to go back to how it was. It’s just four more months,” she reassured his reflection. “ Just four.”
He turned to her and held her, for the first time not clutching her until she felt like she was going to suffocate.
His voice was muffled against her shoulder as he said, “I don’t know who I’ll be in four months.”
They drove to the airport the next morning. They had left the boys with their neighbors. Jason held her hand for the thirty-minute drive, and she felt him glance at her every few minutes. She kept her eyes on the road.
They didn’t say much to each other as they waited for his flight to board. They had done this enough to know that words didn’t do much at this point. So they just waited and sat close. His flight was called.
“Four months,” she said as he held her.
“Four months,” he repeated.
She stayed and watched until the plane finished boarding and headed towards the other side of the runway to leave for another four months. As she stood there, she kept herself busy, twisting her ring back and forth.
Photograph Courtesy: Sharbeen Sarash © All Rights Reserved